A Private Happy 80th Birthday Letter to Bob Dylan That I’m Calling an Open Letter Because I Don’t Have His Contact Information So This is the Only Way I Can Reach Him

Dear Bob,

Happy birthday! You don’t know me, but I’m among those who admire you as a fearless innovator and powerful creative force, who also has written some catchy tunes. And it’s from this place of love that I wish you a happy 80th birthday by presenting you with a one-word recommendation for your concert programs: Medleys. 

Let me be frank, Bob. I love your long, rambling diatribes about visions you’ve had about that Johanna girl and the desolation you found in that row of houses on the other side of town. Those are great songs, triumphs, I would say. Unimpeachable. And yet, today’s audience is different, Bob. This is the TikTok generation. We like things “short.” It wouldn’t hurt if you wrote some shorter songs. That’s why I’m suggesting medleys. They can be your shortcut to “short.” If you made medleys of your older songs by pulling together some of the better lines—like “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” and “The whole wide world is watching,” just to mention a few—you might win over a whole new generation. 

And how about your stamina, Bob? Despite your past claims, you’re not getting any “younger than that now,” and let’s face it, we all slow down with age. Do you really need to sing all six verses of “Chimes of Freedom”—not to mention all eight lines in each verse? The Byrds didn’t—and they had the hit with it! Doesn’t that suggest to you that all your audience ever really needs is a taste? And that’s what medleys give them. 

The payoff for you is a less taxing night with more frequent applause! When George Jones launched into the familiar opening lines of “From the Window Up Above,” the audience cheered, and 30 seconds later they cheered again when that gave way to “Walk Through This World With Me.” And so on. What’s wrong with that? Besides, all the greats perform medleys. Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes. I mean, you can’t do medleys unless you’ve had hits. It’s an exclusive club. And Bob, you are one of its most highly regarded members. Take advantage of it!

To help get you started, I’ve embedded a brief medley of a few of your classic numbers below. Please feel free to use this as is—or as a starting point, or as an inspiration to build your own medley. Whatever you want, Bob, I’m with you!

Let me close by saying that I hope your friends and family celebrate your birthday with you by singing, “Happy Birthday,” a really short song that is still hugely popular—a good model for you! Now please, please, please, I don’t expect any thanks for my s(t)age advice. As I say, I’m offering this from a place of love. Please don’t make a fuss. All the thanks I really need is seeing you onstage performing a medley of your hits! That would be so Positively Fourth Street!

Sign me,

Just a Guy Who Would Love to Have Your Contact Information, Though I’m Not Sure What I Would Do With It Because I Have Enough Trouble Already Staying in Touch With Family and Friends

Photo at the top of the page shows a rearranged cake decoration package assembled by Claire Marziotti to publicize the night I led a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday by playing his songs exclusively on what was another long night at the Landmark Pub in Brooklyn. My performance included no medleys. Go figure.

Did Jack Eichel’s End-of-Season Interview Start a Slow Motion Car Crash?

Perhaps you’ve been in an accident where time slowed down so you were acutely aware of how your disaster was unfolding. There’s a moment when you recognize you’re in danger. You speed-dial your way through possible responses, see you’re coming up short and grab a moment to appreciate what you have before bracing for the inevitable. A new, diminished reality is milliseconds away, and you have no choice but to accept it.

According to many news reports, that’s the point the Buffalo Sabres hockey team is at with their captain and best player, Jack Eichel.

This round of speculative reporting was kicked of when Eichel expressed some disenchantment with the team during his end-of-season interview last week. 

It matters a lot to fans because Jack Eichel is or was the promise of a new beginning for the Sabres. He is a generational player, someone you build a team around and who becomes the face of the franchise, like the anchor store at the mall or the signature bridge on the river. 

For the most part he has lived up to that promise since the Sabres drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015. The Sabres, however, haven’t been able to build a competitive NHL team around him. Their current playoff drought of 10 years ties the league record for that particular futility. They had the league’s longest losing streak this year (18 games) and—for the fourth time in the last seven years—they had the league’s worst record. 

It was OK to have the worst record if that earned you the right to draft a generational player like Eichel. In what world does having the league’s worst record now mean you trade away that generational player?

Jack Eichel, April 5, 2016. Photo by Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA – IMG_5087, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48027751

The trade rumors aren’t new. All through the just-concluded Sabres season, hockey writers routinely speculated that Eichel was on the trading block. The beat reporters in one city or another would conjure up the trade packages their hometown team would need to put together to land him. National writers laid odds on which teams were most likely to pursue him and who they might give up to make the deal happen. 

And this was all based on what? Eichel’s only negative public statement that wafted into my world was his end-of-2020-season comment that he was tired of losing. And who wouldn’t be? It was an honest comment, and Sabres management took it as such, expressing nothing but loyalty to Eichel.

So it has felt like reporters were baiting the sad-sack Sabres into making another lame trade, like when they dealt their previous No. 1 center, Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues where he promptly led them to the Stanley Cup championship, the very next year. 

But Eichel raised the ante somewhat in this year’s end-of-season interview, claiming a disconnect with the organization about how to handle the neck injury that ended his season. He added that he wanted to be ready to play again next year, “where ever that might be.”

Oh.

Eichel went on: “You’ve got to look after what you think is best for yourself, and the organization has a similar job to do, but it’s to look after what’s best for the Buffalo Sabres…. But I’ve got to do what’s best for me, you know what I mean?”

How could what’s best for the Sabres be anything but what is best for their captain, marquee player and best performer?

There are two sides to every story. Sabres newbie General Manager Kevyn Adams claims there’s no disconnect, that Jack is asking for a surgery no active NHL player has ever had and that they’ve agreed to wait until June to make a decision on that. He reports that Eichel hasn’t asked for a trade. That they are moving forward with the players who want to be here and Eichel is on that list (at least for now). 

All that sounds credible. But it’s coming from an organization that has been unable to put its money where its mouth is for more than a decade. Season that with Buffalo’s wide-right sports tradition, and every Eichel trade rumor, while tragically misguided, seems perfectly plausible. 

Photo at the top of the page by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States – New York Islanders vs. Buffalo Sabres – February 8, 2015, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77872227

Revisiting the Carpenters in 1976 London

A friend recently sent me a 1998 book, The Mansion on the Hill, by Fred Goodman, about the yin yang of rock music’s capacity to both inspire youth and bankroll corporations. Goodman struck a chord with me in his prologue, describing the role music played in forming friendships during his high school years in the 1960s. 

“When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along…. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones…Motown and Stax…Dylan. After that you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For example, a passion for perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth …. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.” 

I had a similar code, and as I recall, being a fan of the Carpenters was pretty much a deal breaker. Goodman corroborates this in that the 19-page index in his well-annotated 400-plus page book lists many of the top acts of the 1950s through the 1970s—but no Carpenters. The duo was too conventional, too square to gain a foothold in the counterculture.

Of course, the Carpenters later gained a little cachet when Karen died young and Richard revealed he’d battled drug addiction. And over time I lightened up on my musical code, recognizing that Karen sang really well, that the duo made some enduring music—and that there was something wrong with a rating system that rewards people for getting addicted and dying young. And so it was with vague thoughts of reconciling all this that I tuned in to a YouTube video of The Carpenters in concert at the New London Theatre in 1976. 

Taking a New Tack

I’ve subsequently learned that at the time, the Carpenters were looking to better focus their performances, partly in response to newly stagnating record sales. They had been selling well and touring heavily since 1970. But in 1975, they paused their non-stop work schedule, partly in response to Karen being hospitalized for anorexia that summer, leading them to cancel two international tours. 

Also at this time, Richard was developing a Quaalude problem. It would have its biggest professional impact on Sept. 4, 1978 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when Richard’s dependence led him to abruptly cancel the night’s second show and the remainder of their two-week engagement. It turned out to be their last public performance.

But in 1976, Richard’s problem wasn’t yet dire, and Karen had regained some of her weight and strength. They also took a new approach to their performing. Where for years their concerts simply presented their songs faithfully as recorded, now they were setting out with their first scripted stage show. And that’s what they present at the New London Theatre. 

Performance-wise, the Carpenters appear to be at the top of their game, backed by their crackerjack five-piece touring band—including former Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien on drums—and a full orchestra for broadcast on the BBC.

Surprise!

I was a little surprised that the duo was introduced separately, not as a group. Apparently, that was to ensure Karen wasn’t overshadowing Richard. As musical director, he came on first, appearing a bit imperious, she second, a bit gaunt. 

Perhaps the show’s biggest surprise, though, was their version of “Close to You” (9:55). Richard sang it in a precisely executed Spike Jones arrangement, the band revving up to a Wile-E-Coyote-chasing-the-Roadrunner tempo, punctuated by honking and clanging on a generous line of novelty instruments. 

It’s pretty great, and it seems wickedly out of character for the sensitive, soft-rock duo. But it’s also revealing. When they play with convention, they make fun they way their parent’s generation did. I’m a Spike Jones fan, and I like this performance, but 23-skidoo humor wasn’t exactly a calling card for the underground rock crowd of the day. 

Likewise their show’s structure borrowed more from cabaret than counterculture. Between songs they embraced the time-honored shtick of telling the glossed-up story of their rise from obscurity to fame, and they crammed their hits into a medley, a form that hipper bands avoided in favor of extended solos and psychedelic light shows. 

Virtuosity on Display

The siblings also worked in a few segments to showcase their virtuosity. Richard played a classical piece, the Warsaw Concerto, in a moment reminiscent of Wayne Newton playing “Orange Blossom Special” on fiddle and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on banjo in his Las Vegas revues. None fit the context of the show, except to demonstrate that the artist can match the performances of the masters. Like they have a chip on their shoulder. 

At that point in her career, Karen was no longer the Carpenters’ drummer, having abandoned her instrument to adhere to the common show business dictum that attractive female vocalists do not sit behind drum kits. But her showcase segment—also part of the “rise-to-fame” script—tracked her youthful development as a drummer playing and soloing on a series of ever-larger drum kits. She had real chops, and plays on this night with unmistakable tomboyish passion. 

Had the Carpenters tapped more of the counterculture spirit, Karen would have played drums all night (maybe double-drumming with Cubby!), Richard would have demonstrated his virtuosity in a 15-minute version of “Superstar,” and the stories of achieving success would have been left to be told by music journalists. 

But then I guess they wouldn’t have been the Carpenters. 

Photo at the top of the page: 

The Carpenters meet with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 1972. Not sure how much the Carpenters were paying attention to current events, but that’s just a little more than two years after Nixon was prompted to call protesters “bums blowing up campuses” following the the Kent State massacre. Today marks the 51st anniversary of that mass shooting in which four unarmed students were killed and nine injured by National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus.  

The Aug. 1, 1972 date also has historical significance, as it was the day The Washington Post reported a $25,000 check for the Nixon campaign was discovered to have been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, tying the burglary to Nixon’s campaign for the first time.

You can hear the Nixon Library’s low-quality recording of the Nixon-Carpenters Oval Office meeting here, and you can see video of the photo session here.